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Shinzo Abe and the rise of Japanese nationalism

As a new emperor takes the throne, prime minister Abe is consolidating his ultranationalist “beautiful Japan” project. But can he overcome a falling population and stagnating economy?

On 1 May, Japan welcomed a new emperor. The ageing Akihito, 85, allowed his 59-year-old son, Naruhito, to take over a lineage reputed to be the oldest unbroken line of royals in the world. Compared to its European counterparts, Japan’s imperial family is at once more unassuming and more withdrawn from the people it represents. Nowhere are the affairs and scandals that feed the media machine around the Windsors. The top gossip in recent years has been a potential marriage between a royal granddaughter and a law school student with a (gasp) indebted mother. The incoming monarch yields little additional fodder. He is a royal with a reputation for steadfast competence, international curiosity and the incongruous desire never really to stand out. His two-year stint at Oxford University resulted in a book on waterways bracingly titled The Thames and I. He even switched from the violin to the viola, explaining that the larger instrument, which typically supplies a support role rather than the melody, is more appropriate for his tastes.

Monarchists will have to be patient for the real pomp and circumstance, as the enthronement rites won’t take place until a more auspicious time in October. But 1 May marked the beginning of new era, quite literally: the imperial calendar, used in much bureaucratic and official business, changed from the 31st year of Heisei to the first year of Reiwa.

At the same point a generation ago, the future of Japan could not have looked brighter. When Emperor Akihito began his reign in 1989, the economy was the second largest in the world and the country was producing the most cutting-edge consumer technology of the day. Pundits predicted, and sometimes feared, a new Japan-led era of global growth. Within months, however, the stock market crashed, the economy flat-lined and the country never recovered. Though Japan remains economically more powerful than any country in Europe, it is now easy to forget that fact in the shadow of its much larger neighbour, China. Many of the issues that Japan faces today are not so different from those of another set of islands lying off the coast of a larger, more powerful entity in the form of the EU.

Japan is a sobering test case of just how obstinate a low-yield economy can be. The GDP has barely budged over the past 30 years and economic growth rarely breaks 2 per cent. Initially, the government attempted to end the malaise through deregulation, particularly of the labour market. In the country once known for lifetime employment, 40 per cent of the labour force now works on temporary contracts. With widespread job security a thing of the past, so are the generous pensions, health coverage and unemployment insurance that came with lifetime employment. The precarious future has driven marriage and fertility rates to record lows. One in three people in their twenties expects to work until they die.

Guiding Japan through these challenges is its prime minister, Shinzo Abe. A strategic conservative, he is the heir to two powerful political dynasties: his father was a former foreign minister, his paternal grandfather an MP, and his great-uncle one of the longest-serving prime ministers. But the most conspicuous ornament in the family tree is his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who ran the brutal conscript labour system in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Held for war crimes, he was released before trial in 1948 and eventually became prime minister, calling – unsuccessfully – for revision of the constitution and the expansion of Japan’s military capabilities.

Shinzo Abe lacks the social skills of his extrovert grandfather, whom he lauds in speeches. Indeed, when Abe took power in 2012, few expected him to last long or accomplish much. They had seen him in the role before, in 2006, when he held on for less than a year before resigning in the face of gaffes, money scandals and parliamentary election losses, and while suffering from poor health.

His second attempt, however, revealed a newfound sense of perseverance: Abe is set to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Distinguishing his first stint from his second is “Abenomics”, a powerful economic salvo that was to jolt the Japanese economy back to life. The combination of monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and structural reform aimed to lift inflation to 2 per cent and produce a virtuous cycle of business expansion and consumer spending. But instead, the economy performed a dead cat bounce: a small recovery, then nothing. The effect on the national debt has been far greater. It now stands at an eyewatering 250 per cent of GDP. A long-planned sales tax hike, meant to pay for the huge borrowing, is likely to be delayed again in fear it will drag the fragile economy back into recession.

As in the UK, economic stagnation has not been accompanied by mass unemployment in Japan – just mass underemployment, if measured by what people have to live on. Though more than 97 per cent of people who want jobs are working, inequality has grown substantially. Japan is now one of the most unequal countries among the 36 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-0peration and Development (OECD), with more than 1.5 million out of its 50 million households surviving on welfare. And the future is not promising: one in six Japanese children lives in poverty.

Still, the meagre economic growth is remarkable when one considers the shrinking population, which has been declining since 2008. The fertility rate in both Japan and the UK – 1.45 and 1.80 births per woman respectively – are below replacement levels of 2.1 percent. But in Britain, immigration helps maintain the population growth at a mild 0.6 per cent, due to both the influx of people and their higher average birth rates.

Japan is losing more than 400,000 people per year, and the rate is accelerating as the baby boomers die off. Bureaucrats hope to sustain the total population at 100 million, a fifth smaller than its present size. But no one knows how this will work – or how the pension and public health care systems will be kept afloat – without significant immigration. Even as the government looks into robotics to plug some of the gaps, it is clear that in many industries, such as elderly care, there are limits to how far machines can substitute for human services. Plus, robots do not pay taxes or pension contributions.

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Nativists in the West may hail Japan, with its foreign population of around 2 per cent, as a model to follow. But on the edge of the Pacific, even arch-conservatives realise the system is untenable. Abe has been expanding migration channels, rather than closing them down. In the past year, the government was gratified to see foreign workers increase by nearly 15 per cent to 1.5 million, a total that has tripled over the past decade, and expects to attract 345,000 more foreign workers over the next five years.

This growth is not only from programmes to attract highly skilled workers; the government now courts low- and medium-skilled foreign workers, mostly from China, the Philippines and Vietnam, to fill labour gaps in agriculture, construction, manufacturing and care work. It has even opened the way for settlement and family reunion, options previously unavailable to low-paid workers. The conservative state is still hesitant to call the mix anything like “immigration”, and Japan is hardly a choice destination of migrants (it ranks below Estonia and Taiwan on its ability to attract and develop talent).

The influx comes as Japan re-evaluates its place in a world where its significance is shrinking – an exercise that post-Brexit Britain will face as well. During the Cold War, the choice was made for Japan. In the wake of the Allied victory in the Second World War, the American occupying army ensured that economic ties with a communist China were not revived and that Japan’s economic lot was thrown in with the capitalist West. Its prime minister at the time, Yoshida Shigeru, gave his name to the system under which Japan would hand over responsibility for its defence and foreign policy to the Americans, while focusing its efforts on economic growth, which it did with remarkable success – in the space of a decade, Japan’s GDP doubled.

In return, Japan relinquished large swaths of the country to the American military. The greatest surrender is in Okinawa prefecture, where US bases cover over 15 per cent of the main island. Locals have fervently resisted the foreign presence, both at the ballot box and through spectacular demonstrations. Today, around two-dozen bases and 50,000 US soldiers remain in the country, along with the US navy’s Seventh Fleet – its largest abroad. Japan pays for this, too, shouldering three-quarters of the cost for the US to extend its military reach deep into Asia. 

The same pliability holds for the economy, despite Japan’s reputation for playing hardball. When Americans began buying up Japanese consumer products in the 1980s, the Japanese simply lent the dollars back by purchasing US debt. This is a tactic that China has learned from, perhaps too well – in 2010 it overtook its neighbour to become the world’s second biggest economy. And though China is Japan’s largest trading partner, the island nation still cleaves to the US. After Donald Trump won the election, Abe raced to New York to become the first foreign leader to meet him. Since then he has found that the Americans are not as reliable as they once were. The US jumped ship on Abe’s treasured Trans-Pacific Partnership (the “everyone but China club”); Japan has been shut out of meetings with North Korea, much to Abe’s chagrin; and the most recent round of trade negotiations with the US has proceeded only haltingly. If nationalist resurgence has rendered rapprochement with China, South Korea and Taiwan tricky, some in Japan wonder if tagging along with the US is worth the cost of turning away from their economically important and geopolitically powerful neighbours.


Rites of passage: the new emperor, Naruhito, at a ritual in May for dispatching imperial envoys

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The hype around Abenomics has distracted attention from Abe’s more ominous policy successes. Within a year of election, he sidestepped debate to pass a law that greatly expands the government’s remit for designating information a state secret. Now even environmental and health information can be rendered virtually inaccessible to the public. Pundits quickly dubbed it an anti-whistle-blower law, but the media seems unlikely to present much of a threat. In December 2013, Abe installed at the helm of the national broadcasting agency NHK one of his cronies, who confirmed that the country’s most-watched television network would remain complacent: “If the government says right, we won’t say left,” he declared. In the following year several of Japan’s top journalists and news hosts were ousted. The UN and Reporters Without Borders have expressed concern about the erosion of press freedom.

In 2017 Abe employed his hallmark legislative style – ramming through acts by short-circuiting debate and votes – to pass a new anti-terrorism bill. He pitched the law, which criminalises more than 250 actions, as necessary to protect the country during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has noted that many of the forbidden deeds – such as sit-in protests or copying music – have not the remotest connection to terrorism and merely offer pretexts for squashing grass-roots political movements.

But these are side stories to Abe’s main agenda, which is to “normalise Japan” – shorthand for comprehensively revising the constitution and creating a standing army. The Japanese constitution, written largely by American occupiers, has been a bugbear of the political right since its inception. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has hoped to replace it for more than 60 years. But no prime minister has come as close as Abe to achieving this. LDP proposals call for rewriting nearly all of the 103 articles, weakening the protection of individual rights, strengthening the pre-eminent importance of public order, qualifying basic freedoms, and underscoring the centrality of the emperor to the nation.

Revising Article 9 of the constitution, with its ban on maintaining an army, is central to this endeavour. Despite Japan’s “self-defence forces” constituting the eighth largest military in the world, the difference between a de facto and a de jure army leaves its former colonies – China and the Koreas – on edge. The Americans, by contrast, fully support change. They have worked for years to ensure that the Japanese forces are “interoperable” with US counterparts. For Washington, a well-armed Japan is both cheaper and more expedient, especially as Beijing expands its reach into the Pacific.

Abe’s strongman approach might be seen as part of a broader global trend. But unlike the waves of supporters who voted for Jair Bolsonaro, Trump, Narendra Modi and Rodrigo Duterte, voter turnout in Japan has plummeted. If there are any lessons for Britain’s Labour Party, they are not from the Democratic Party of Japan, the main counterbalance to the conservative LDP over the past two decades. In the last election in 2017, the party split, with half joining an LDP breakaway centre-right group. Each faction collected just over 10 per cent of available seats, against the LDP’s 60 per cent. The poverty of viable options at election time has meant that nearly half the population no longer bothers to cast a vote.

Into this space of political inaction has stepped the Nippon Kaigi – the “Japan Conference”. The stated aim of this right-wing organisation, formed in 1997, is to “build a nation with pride”. Its goals are not just nationalist but neo-imperial, inspired by a selective memory of Japanese “greatness” at the height of colonial expansion. The group seeks a new constitution recalling that of the Meiji era, when the Japanese were duty-bearing subjects rather than rights-bearing citizens. It hopes to return the emperor to the centre of political power, in a throwback to the rhetoric and images used to rally the populace during the Second World War. Traditional family values – women in the kitchen, off the throne and under their husband’s family name – form another area they want to strengthen.

The conference claims nearly 40,000 members, but more important is who they are. Its reach into political offices and Shinto religious organisations is long: around 60 per cent of parliamentarians are members of the Nippon Kaigi, which uses its networks to rally voters to the polls. So far, the group’s biggest success has been in schools. It has led the suppression of what it calls “masochistic” views of history, as well as “excessive” focus on human rights. Twenty years ago, all mainstream history books at secondary schools carried information about the “comfort women”, the Korean and Chinese victims of colonisation who were trafficked into sex work for the Japanese army. Now none do.

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Calls for greater pride and sovereignty in Japan are – as in the UK – an inconsistent mash-up of imperial imaginings, if not hallucinations. It’s little wonder, then, that the name for the new imperial era selected by the Abe government, “Reiwa”, has unsettling overtones. The term, taken from classical poetry, means “auspicious harmony”. In the official translation, it’s rendered “beautiful harmony” – a choice that recalls Abe’s own repeated appeals to create a “beautiful Japan”. By itself, the character for “rei” also means “command” or “order”. In everyday speech, the semantic overlap may be innocuous – few English speakers pause to reflect that the Greek root of “pharmacy” – pharmakon – contains both “remedy” and “poison” among its meanings. But how the name will be understood depends a lot on how Naruhito defines his role – a job not as easy as one might think.

The separation of the Japanese monarch from any political issues is so complete that when Emperor Akihito floated the possibility of stepping down, commentators debated whether he had exceeded his station. None the less, the retiring royal carved out a role for himself by supporting social welfare causes. In contrast to his distant father Hirohito, he went out to the streets to offer solace and consolation to the underprivileged, disaster victims, and others in need. His actions were so unexpected that even the most mundane gestures – squatting to talk to an old woman sitting on the floor of an evacuation centre – grabbed headlines. Outside the country (and to the chagrin of ultranationalists), Akihito made a point of recognising Japanese wartime aggression with a remorse that was more authentic than Abe’s pro forma apologies. It remains to be seen what a path his son will take amid a landscape of continuing economic stagnation and escalating nationalism. 

Kristin Surak is senior lecturer in Japanese politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies and a Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University

This article appears in the 17 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question